Reducing Avoidance with Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Estimated watch time: 5 mins 56 secs


With cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), you can start to learn strategies to stop avoiding anxiety triggers. This guide walks you through the importance of taking small steps to work past avoidance. As you’re doing so, you should become mindful of how your progress makes you feel.

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Reducing Avoidance with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) for Anxiety

In this lesson we will discuss reducing avoidance with cognitive behavioral therapy.

CBT offers strategies to help you stop avoiding things that provoke your anxiety.

One of the things we often do when we’re anxious is avoid. You think about going somewhere or doing something, it triggers anxiety, and you don’t do it. Or you put it on indefinite hold.

Sometimes they’re things that ought to be done. Like visiting grandma. Or things that are in your best interest to do, like making plans with friends.

Start by noticing how your anxiety results in avoidance.

Are there calls you need to make? Projects you need to start? The gym you want to get to? Take a moment to identify something you are avoiding.

Is your avoidance in keeping with your values and goals?

Take a moment to identify your values and goals. Values include things like honesty, autonomy and service. Goals are ways of behaving in the service of those values. If you value honesty, your goal is to be truthful. If you value autonomy, your goal is to have a job and place to live independently. If you value service, your goal is to volunteer your time.

Perhaps you’re avoiding a project at work. You must do the project to keep your job. Is avoiding it, risking losing your job, in keeping with your values? If you value being independent, and your goal is paying your bills, then avoiding the project does not serve you well.

Avoidance is often in opposition to our values and goals.

Avoiding maintains your anxiety.

Avoiding does not lower anxiety except for a brief time when you decide to avoid.

When you avoid making the call or starting the project, your anxiety decreases. So you keep avoiding.

The next time you consider doing the thing, your anxiety remains the same, or perhaps it’s a little higher. It’s become a vicious cycle.

Why are you avoiding?

Is it that you haven’t had time to make the calls, start the project or get to the gym?

Sometimes our cognitive distortions trigger anxiety. You might think you’re not good enough to produce a good project which raises your anxiety (watch the video about “Using CBT to Reduce Anxiety”).

Sometimes we don’t know exactly why we’re anxious.

The “why” doesn’t matter as much as you think. Sometimes it’s more effective to figure out how to stop avoiding and start doing.

Begin by identifying small steps you can take to reduce avoidance.

It’s the effort that’s important. Make the effort to take a small step. The outcome, or how much you accomplish, is less important. Your goal is to get moving and stop avoiding.

These are examples of small steps:

For a work project, start by carving out some time daily to get your project going. Use that time for project-related activity. Don’t worry about exactly how much gets done, just work for the time you’ve set aside.

Schedule time to make one call a day. Make the call whether you feel like it or not. Go to the gym and look at the equipment and classes. Decide what you’ll do the next time you go. Identify a co-worker or friend to serve as your accountability buddy.

Continue by taking slightly larger steps.

Spend a little more time daily on your project, make several calls a day, work out two or three times a week, keep checking in with your accountability buddy.

Identify your coping strategies. When you stop avoiding, your anxiety will initially increase. Have some things in mind that you can use to reduce anxiety.

Things that lower anxiety include:

  • Relaxation, breathing strategies, meditation, prayer
  • Using positive self-talk (“you can do this!”) to cheer yourself on
  • Publicly saying you’re going to do the thing. Knowing people expect you to do something is motivating
  • Asking people for support
  • Accepting that a little anxiety does not have to stop you. Once you get moving your anxiety will decrease.

Notice how doing, instead of avoiding, helps you meet important goals that are consistent with your values. Feeling good about what you’re doing will lower your anxiety.

Notice how taking small steps, over time, lowers your anxiety. You realize you’ve been going to the gym for a week and have not been anxious.

Remember that if your anxiety increases, it will decrease as you keep doing what you’re doing.Sometimes after having a break from a project or the gym, you may experience an uptick in your anxiety. Remind yourself that what goes up, must come down.

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